Chirag Shetty is in the habit of keeping himself informed by reading up everything he can lay his hands on, when curiosity strikes. He carries the same thoroughness onto the badminton court. Except in the fast-paced world of doubles shuttle, he has a fraction of a second to parse through all the options clanking and colliding in his head, confusing his decision-making – when the opponent’s ripping back the shuttle from across the net.
The coronavirus pandemic-forced time away from competition gave Shetty all the time to deal with this predicament. As the World No. 10 pairing with Satwiksairaj Rankireddy were forced to practice individually, Shetty would go about decluttering all the choices in his head. While the young Indian doubles team remains a work in progress, they would come up against the Daddies of such decision-making in Round 2 at the Thailand Yonex Super 1000. The 21-19, 21-17 loss, where Chirag’s tentative game would resurface, can be filed away as a lesson delivered first-hand by the masters of this game, World No. 2 Indonesians Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan. The Indians were level at 17-all in the first game and close in at 17-16 in the next, but lacked the composure and clarity in closing out, driving home the need for Shetty to continue on his path of sorting out his half of the game.
“When I was stuck in Mumbai and Satwik was at his place, I took the opportunity to train a lot with Mathias Boe (Olympic medallist from Denmark). He changed my perspective on how I anticipate strokes. I am in the habit of being ready for every possible stroke. But he stressed that I need to be ready for the most likely one,” Shetty explains.
Anticipation is intuitive, and pretty much difficult to break down and teach. So Shetty is aware that he’ll get better at it only by playing more and more. However, the high art of doubles badminton has practitioners around the world, pickled in that culture of pre-emption. Boe is helping Shetty unlock those aspects of his individual game.
While Satwik mixes brain and brawn effortlessly, Chirag is trying to learn the tricks of the trade – at times with a fellow doubles player, the now-retired Shlok Ramachandran, and at others from the big names of the sport.
Boe, his teammate in the Premier Badminton League one season, helped him bring the zing that top pairings from doubles powerhouses learn from sparring with many equally adept combinations. “When you hit across and know the partner’s covering the return, that’s just one dimension. But we get drawn into playing unnecessarily long rallies because we are still inexperienced. He’s (Boe) helping me get into position anticipating a stroke that’s most likely to be played and finish rallies quicker. I think I’m playing smarter, and hence calmer. But there’s lots to learn of course,” Shetty says.
The Indians duo last played a tournament exactly a year back, having skipped the All England and then getting stuck in lockdown in separate cities. Satwik would then recover from his Covid infection, before the two reunited only a couple of months back in Hyderabad.
While Shetty would continue to pick Boe’s brains on service and returns and catching the shuttle early, the two have been part of individual up-skilling even when they got together in Hyderabad.
“There’s lots of individual multi-sessions under coach Dwi (Kristiawan). It’s just standing strokes, but he’s helped with drives and quick drills and anticipation as well,” he says of the Indonesian who took over after Flandy Limpele left.
The Indians – almost assured to qualify for Tokyo – have beaten the ‘Daddies’ before, mostly using pace to hustle them and pounce on their slightly slow reactions deep into a tournament, but could not bring on the same verve to blitz them in Bangkok, given the early season and how fresh every pairing is. Shetty-Reddy will need to do much more to leverage the age factor.
“The plan’s to attack. They are a bit older, but surely the smartest pairing in the world,” Shetty would say earlier. However, the plans to use their quicker reflexes, catch them fast and force them to lift, couldn’t be executed.
“Have really missed the thrill of winning the last point of a match in this pandemic,” Shetty would say. For someone who loves team dinners and the camaraderie, chomping on lunch alone in the room has been particularly rough. But the pandemic has taught him to confront precisely what makes him uncomfortable.